Latin Not Tough Enough Redux

T’other day facebook (of all people) pointed us to an article in the Independent which was reporting a paper by John N. Davie, with the spin that as taught currently in UK Schools, Latin wasn’t difficult enough and (somewhat paradoxically) that Latin should be taught in all schools (Latin Not Tough Enough … and Should Be Taught in Every School). In the wake of that item, Liz Gloyn and Stephen Jenkin tracked down the original “pamphlet”, which is available as a pdf here. While I encourage all to read it, there are a couple of points worth noting … first, the ‘not tough enough’ part appears to be connected to the whole language approach of courses such as the CLC:

Today in schools, prep and secondary, where once it was normal to provide pupils with a sound linguistic basis for their studies, the subject is everywhere taught through the medium of “readers” such as The Cambridge Latin Course, easily the most widely used course as a preparation for GCSE and A-level.* The rationale behind this “modernist” approach to the teaching of Classics was that the traditional emphasis on language-learning before reading texts was alienating modern pupils, who were comparing their Classics lessons unfavourably with the experience of learning French or Spanish or Italian.

In modernist courses such as the CLC, there is (deliberately) no systematic learning of grammar or syntax, and emphasis is laid on fast reading of a dramatic continuous story in made-up Latin which gives scope for looking at aspects of ancient life. The principle of osmosis underlying this approach, whereby children will learn linguistic forms by constant exposure to them, aroused scepticism among many teachers and has been thoroughly discredited by experts in linguistics. Grammar and syntax learned in this piecemeal fashion give pupils no sense of structure and, crucially, deny them practice in logical analysis, a fundamental skill provided by Classics.

I personally have no experience with the CLC (I’m a Wheelock guy), but I can say that different people respond to different methods differently. In Greek, e.g., I could not make heads or tails with the JACT course while an undergrad, but made definite progress with Chase and Philips. At the grade school level, we’d recognize this and incorporate differentiated instruction in some way … it’s something that really needs to come to Classical languages in general … a sort of parallel text (the JACT Latin comes close, I think).

After the criticism, however, there’s a bit of a non-sequitur ‘good old days’ paragraph:

Previously teachers could assume in A-level students a fair grasp of the language and how it worked. This meant that no formal exams were sat at the end of the first year of A-level. Instead pupils were introduced to a wide range of authors and given a sense of the scope of the subject. By Christmas few were not thoroughly convinced they had made a good decision and (crucially) their reading was enjoyable because their linguistic knowledge gave them the confidence and ability to meet ancient authors, especially poets, on their own terms. In their final year they studied two or three set texts in depth and were examined thoroughly in these, reading them from first line to last in the original language, learning how to evaluate literature through criticism and, if they chose, studying ancient history in tandem, reading primary sources in the original language, and regularly writing essays, in which they acquired the skills of marshalling facts logically and producing arguments.

… I’m sure that the proportion of those who ‘got it’ previously were pretty much the same as now … they just ‘got it’ in the same way that Mr Davie and his generation ‘got it’. It continues after a bit:

In addition pupils were introduced to prose-composition from the beginning of their last two years, turning passages of continuous English into Latin and Greek, based on their experience of writing a simpler form of this at O-level. In consequence all gained in confidence and appreciation of the language and some attained a high standard. We know that this exercise formed part of the curriculum at Stratford when Shakespeare was a boy.

… definitely important; I’m not sure what the situation is with the CLC and what follows, of course. After a bit, we hear about the exam itself:

For language they are required to translate a short passage of Latin or Greek prose into English, having learned a specified list of words in advance and at the same time having the benefit of several words whose meaning is given below the passage. The level of difficulty is not substantially higher than that of GCSE, and yet this is the exam whose grades and marks are consulted by the universities when they are trying to determine the ability of candidates. As so many students achieve an A* grade, it is no surprise that considerable importance is now attached to the interview. Having learned the translation of these bite-sized chunks of literature with little awareness of their context or the wider picture (as at GCSE, it is increasingly the case that pupils are incapable of working out the Latin/Greek text for themselves, and so lean heavily on a supplied translation), they approach the university interview with little or no ability to think “outside the box”. Dons at Oxford and Cambridge regularly encounter a lack of independent thought and a tendency to fall back on generalisations that betray insufficient background reading or even basic curiosity about the subject. This need not be the case and is clearly the product of setting the bar too low for these young people at school.

… welcome to the world of ‘teaching to the test’, which is the inevitable result of standardized testing and all the criticisms leveled here are the same as those which are levelled at standardized tests in practically every subject and at every level. There seems to also be an expectation that students of this age are capable of significant ‘independent thinking’, which may or may not be possible in today’s education system. In the ‘good old days’ classes were fewer and longer. There was more time to cover things thoroughly and students could spend more time outside of class potentially ‘thinking’ about it (which is where any thinking happens). Times have changed, and by the looks of things the exams in the UK have changed along with them to reflect that.

After a brief section on the effect of teaching at the university level, the recommendations come:

When I asked Classics dons at Oxford and Cambridge what they would like to see as a basic skill in prospective students coming up to university to study their subject, the majority gave me the same reply: a secure grasp of the principles of Latin and Greek grammar and a working knowledge of the syntax.Of course, as interviews increasingly show, they look also for imagination, a logical mind and the ability to think laterally, but the general view is that with the languages in place anything is possible for a young person of curiosity and commitment.

… one could argue that if a student has curiosity and commitment, a deficiency in the languages will quickly be made up at the university level where the ‘need’ for such things would be much more apparent.

It should not be beyond the wit of schools to provide this, as they did in the past, but first they need freedom to challenge their pupils. This means that inappropriate exams like GCSE and AS must be replaced by something altogether more rigorous and demanding. It is good that, unlike Modern Languages GCSE, Classics GCSE requires pupils to read some real literature but we need to create a situation where they do not simply learn a version supplied by their teacher but are in a position to read the Greek or Latin for themselves (with some help) and to realise how much they would be missing if an author like Virgil existed only in translation.

… or perhaps the exam system should be questioned further. Does performance on one or two days provide a fair assessment of a student’s abilities? Or does it just provide a snapshot of how they performed on a particular day?

This can only happen if, from their first lessons at school, they are required to learn the languages gradually in a systematic way, being introduced to the grammar in relation to English grammar and being encouraged to write as well as to translate Latin and Greek. In the past at traditional schools it was not uncommon for children to have the same teacher for English and Latin in their early years, and there is much to be said for this, given the apparent reluctance of so many English teachers to teach their own language. It is perfectly possible to teach the languages in a structured, logical way without sacrificing the social life and history of the Greeks and Romans.

… I have no problems with this, although time and commitment to provide other curricula must also be acknowledged. Classics and ancient languages have much to compete with, alas, and it will take much convincing of many people that it complements other curricula.

GCSE should be replaced by a modern version of the O-level that stretches pupils and does not hamstring them as at present. This would make the present AS exam completely unsuitable, and either a more challenging set of papers should be devised, if the universities wish to continue with pre A-level interviewing, or there should be a return to an unexamined year of wide reading before the specialisation of the last year.

… not in a position to comment on this, other than to reiterate my disdain for single exams determining a person’s competence in something …

Although the present exam, A2, has more to recommend it than AS, it also would no longer be fit for purpose and would need strengthening. As part of both final years there should be regular practice in the writing of essays, a skill that has been largely lost in recent years because of the exam system and is (rightly) much missed by dons.

… something which should be mentioned, of course, is that even if all these things were implemented, the dons would still find something to complain about in regards to the incoming class’ training or perceived lack thereof. It was always ever thus and always will be. Go into any school and ask a teacher how prepared their incoming class is and I guarantee there will be grumbling about the previous level not teaching this or that particular thing sufficiently. I like the recommendations about language teaching — heck, every year I write to the big guns in our school board offering to set up a Latin program — but I’m not sure the results in terms of ‘logical’ and ‘lateral’ thinking necessarily follow. There are other benefits that can and should be pushed at the grade school level (especially the effects on English grammar and syntax), and with any amount of luck, there will be spinoffs in the area of interest in Classics at the university level.

2 thoughts on “Latin Not Tough Enough Redux

  1. A few observations from my experience:

    – No teacher worth her/his salt would use the Cambridge Latin Course without additional grammar teaching. The book is not designed to replace a teacher!
    – So many students get A*s because it is almost always the brightest students of good schools that sit classics exams — no other reason.
    – The problem with set texts in exams is that students are expected to translate them, yet they are very difficult. Thus, students learn translations by heart. Much better would be to test literary analysis/ context/ deeper understanding of set texts, and have unseen translations in the exam (which is what the WJEC exams do…)
    – There is constant talk of making exams more ‘rigorous’/ ‘strengthened’ etc. etc. This is usually politically motivated waffle.

  2. This piece makes me count myself lucky that I learned Latin and Greek at school in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time I left school I had read plenty of authors, including complete works (Sophocles OT, Euripides Electra, Cicero Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino) and excerpts (Iliad 18, Catullus, Horace, Virgil).
    Perhaps good students nowadays catch up on all this later. But do they really? In my own experience as an academic in linguistics, I have studied seriously a variety of languages in adult life (Hungarian, Zulu, Sanskrit); but my recollection of vocabulary in these languages has faded almost to nothing, whereas I can still read Greek and Latin texts with reasonable ease.
    When I was 17 I worked through the Penguin Russian Course, and I still retain a basic reading knowledge of Russian. But that’s the last of the languages I’ve studied that I remember well.
    Could it be that to leave serious engagement with a language until one is 18 or older — effectively, until adulthood — is to leave it too late?

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